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The Supreme Court

Empowering the National Government

Now that Marshall had clearly established the Court's power to rule on the constitutionality of the law, his next major battle was to ensure the federal government had the power it needed over state governments to build a strong national government. The first case that landed on the doorstep of the Supreme Court that allowed him to rule on this critical principle was McCulloch v. Maryland.

The controversy in this case involved the right of the United States to set up a central bank. In 1791 Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton proposed the first charter Bank of the United States. Jefferson opposed the idea, saying the Constitution did not give Congress the power to charter such a bank. Hamilton argued that Congress did have that power under the Necessary and Proper clause of the Constitution, which allows Congress to make “all laws which shall be deemed necessary and proper for carrying into execution the foregoing powers, and all other powers vested by this Constitution in the government of the United States.”

Just the Facts

State-chartered banks did end up winning 20 years later when it came time for Congress to revisit the central bank's charter in 1832. Andrew Jackson thought the central bank had too much economic power and campaigned against it. State bankers were happy to support his campaign, as were westerners and farmers who also were opposed to the federal bank's control. Jackson won election campaigning on this issue against the pro-bank candidate Henry Clay. Congress did recharter the bank in 1832, but Jackson vetoed the bill. The second central bank closed its doors in 1836.

President Washington backed Hamilton and the bank was given a 20-year charter, which expired in 1811 and was not renewed by Jefferson. In 1816, President Madison realized that the federal government did need a central bank and recommended that Congress charter a second Bank of the United States, which established branches throughout the country. This bank served as a depository for federal funds and had the right to print bank notes.

State-chartered banks opposed the move and asked their legislatures to restrict the federal bank's operations. Maryland did just that by imposing a tax on bank operations. James McCulloch, who was the cashier at the Baltimore branch of the Bank of the United States, refused to pay the tax, which eventually landed the entire issue in the lap of the Supreme Court.

Marshall's court ruled that not only did the federal government have a right to establish a central bank, but that this bank could not be subjected to state taxation. He clearly established the right of federal supremacy by ruling that “states have no power, by taxation or otherwise, to retard, impede, burden, or in any manner control, the operations of the federal government, or its agencies, and instrumentalities.”

Of course there were many more critical rulings throughout Marshall's 34 years on the court, but we don't have room to review each of the Marshall Court cases here. Instead, we'll be taking a closer look at how case law established during the Marshall court, as well as other Supreme Courts over the years, has shaped the body of laws that serve as a foundation for our government today. Each of the last four sections of the book focuses on a different theme—government rights, social issue, criminal cases, and business issues.

In the next section, we'll look at the court of another giant in the shaping of the Supreme Court and today's laws—Chief Justice Earl Warren, who served from 1953 to 1969.

book cover

Excerpted from The Complete Idiot's Guide to The Supreme Court © 2004 by Lita Epstein, J.D.. All rights reserved including the right of reproduction in whole or in part in any form. Used by arrangement with Alpha Books, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.

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